Talk Story with Ray Pigott

WAIMEA — It was more than two decades ago that Ray Pigott left Southern California for Kauai.

The reason he opted to move to the Garden Isle — the surf.

As a teenager, the Olympic sport of wrestling piqued his interest. He competed throughout his four years in high school and took part in open tournaments as an adult.

Pigott went on a hiatus from wrestling when he moved to Kauai, then got back in the fold in 1990 at the inaugural Aloha State Games. He then founded a local club located on Kauai’s Westside to teach the sport to local youths.

That re-ignited passion turned into a life’s mission to bring to Kauai what the other islands already had — wrestling as part of its high school athletics.

The dream came to fruition three years ago when the Kauai Interscholastic Federation sanctioned the sport and had its opening season.

He is now the KIF wrestling tournament director.

“Coach Mac,” as he’s called, sat down with The Garden Island in the wrestling room behind the Waimea Baptist Church, where his club trains, and talked about his experiences competing and coaching, as well as his “vision quest” to get wrestling approved by the KIF.

The Garden Island: So take us back to the beginning. How was the club founded?

Ray Pigott: I founded Westside Wrestling in 1990. How that came to be was it was the inaugural year of the Aloha State Games. I had been living on Kauai a little over 10 years at the time. I saw the brochure for the inaugural Aloha State Games I was like, “Wrestling? I want to enter it.” Living here on Kauai, I didn’t think there was any wrestling.

So I go over there, and boy. I found out that it’s a big sport in the state. So when I went to enter the tournament, (the form asked) for club affiliation. It popped into my head — I’m from the Westside of Kauai. Everything over here is Westside this, Westside that. I go, “Westside Wrestling.” So that’s the origin of the name, and that’s what marked the founding of the club.

TGI: So how did you do?

RP: I learned some hard lessons that day. I think I finished fourth place, or something. I won some matches. I wrestled some college wrestlers that were coming home from college and placed in the nationals. They just gave me lickings.

At that time, I think I was 36. Now, I’m 62. It’s been a long haul in the sport. I’ll be approaching, in a couple of years, it will be 50 years of tournament wrestling for myself.

I’m not done. I want to make the 50, then I want to retire and leave the shoes on the mat.

In 2008, it was the last time I competed. I won in freestyle and Greco Roman wrestling — the two Olympic styles. I actually have not competed since then, but I would like to compete maybe a few more times, then call it quits after 50 years. That’s my goal, if I can do it.

TGI: So where are you from originally?

RP: I’m from Southern California, originally.

When I was in seventh or eighth grade, my sister was a senior in high school and was dating a wrestler. He came over and wrestled with me on the living room floor. He asked if I wanted to come over the high school practices.

So when I was in eighth grade, I started training with the high school team that I would eventually become part of the next year.

TGI: Did you go on to wrestle in college?

RP: I didn’t compete. I wrestled at my college. But back then during the Vietnam War, I was a hippie. NCAA had hair regulations, and I wasn’t going to cut my hair. But I used to train with the team and enter in open division tournaments.

In 1990, I was actually working at PMRF, the naval base. Some of my co-workers said, “Oh, you’re going to wrestle in the Aloha State Games. You wrestle? Wow. You know, we’d really love to have wrestling for our children, but Waimea High School says we just don’t have a coach.”

They said their cousins wrestle on Oahu. They asked if I could call and talk with the athletic director. I said sure.

That’s when I marked, in 1990, the beginning of my vision quest to establish KIF wrestling.

KIF and the Kauai Unified School District were the only public schools in the state of Hawaii that didn’t have the sport. They never competed with the other schools districts, the other leagues.

TGI: Do you regret not giving college wrestling a shot?

RP: I have a few regrets in my life. I’m not going to tell you some of them, but yeah. I do, a little bit. Also, that I didn’t take it more seriously in high school. That, more so, that I didn’t wrestle in college.

If I had taken it more seriously in high school, then I might have been offered scholarships instead of having to walk on. I didn’t take it serious. I was pretty good without really trying. That’s what kept me hungry, and that’s what drives me to help youth now and try to get them motivated.

I didn’t have anyone in my life like a “Coach Mac” when I was a youth wrestler. In fact, in both my junior and senior year, my wrestling coach quit in the middle of the season.

I had family support. Don’t get me wrong. But there was nobody in the world of wrestling that was talking to me and my parents, and asking if I wanted to take it further.

TGI: How did this mission to wrestling sanctioned by the KIF start? How did you feel when it finally happened?

RP: It is my lifetime achievement that I did get KIF wrestling sanctioned, and this is our third year now. That vision quest that started in 1990 was a 23-year quest with lots of ups and downs.

My good friend, Derek Kawakami, he was a county councilman. He’s now a state legislator. He became a good friend of mine, actually, through ju jitsu. That’s how I got to know him. He adopted the vision quest.

When he went and spoke before the school district, the worm turned. He said the exact same things I’ve been saying, but it was different when it came out of his mouth.

When he stood before them and asked them, which I’ve been asking for years, “How come our students are the only students in the state who don’t have that as part of their standard curriculum?” they had no answer. Within one year, we had a fully sanctioned sport.

It wasn’t like every year I was at meetings, pounding on doors and doing petitions and stuff. Some years, I just gave up. Then I would be reinvigorated and try again. I tried all sorts of strategies.

TGI: How has the KIF talent improved each year?

RP: It’s great. The median skill level is up. And our pound-for-pound best wrestlers, their skill levels are up. One of the coaches said last week, “Things have changed since the first year.” Now, we’re having a lot better matches.

The trouble for us is that our pound-for-pound best wrestlers are in the toughest weight classes. It’s really tough competition. They need to be up against the very best.

Those few I’m talking about don’t have much competition here unless they wrestle each other. They just don’t have much competition here with just three public schools and one small private school.

We are definitely, by far, the smallest league. Our wrestlers are really hindered by that. They just don’t have the on-island competition, and competition is what makes you better.

TGI: Did anything from this season stand out to you?

RP: It was nice to see Island School field a bunch of freshman, just with fire in their eyes. Last year, they didn’t have any girls. This year, they got three or four freshman girls. And that’s a small school. They got some wrestlers with a lot of potential. Also, just having freshman all around the league coming out (is great). That’s nice. And our pound-for-pound best, they’re looking really sharp.

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